This article was published in Wednesday's edition of my local paper, www.postbulletin.com"Startling" photograph draws NASA's attention
Electrical bolt could have several explanations
By Sabin Russell
San Francisco Chronicle
SAN FRANCISCO--Top investigators of the Columbia space shuttle disaster are analyzing a startling photograph--snapped by an amateur astronomer from a San Francisco hillside--that appears to show a purplish electrical bolt striking the craft as it streaked across the California sky.
The digital image is one of five snapped by the shuttle buff at roughly 7:53 a.m. (CST) Saturday as sensors on the doomed orbiter began showing the first indications of trouble. Seven minutes later the craft broke up in flames over Texas.
The photographer requested that his name not be used and said he will not release the image to the public until NASA experts have time to examine it.
Although there are several possible benign explanations for the image, such as a barely perceptable jiggle of the camera as it took the time exposure, NASA's zeal to examine it demonstrates the lengths at which the agency is going to tap the resources of ordinary Americans in solving the puzzle.
Late Tuesday, NASA dispatched former shuttle astronaut Tammy Jernigan, now a manager at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, to the San Francisco home of the astronomer to examine his digital images and to take the camera itself to Mountain View, where it was to be taken to Houston this morning.
A Chronicle reporter was present when the astronaut arrived. First seeing the image on a large computer screen, she had one word: "Wow."
In the critical shot, a flowing purple rope of light corkscrews down toward the plasma trail, appears to pass behind it, then cuts sharply toward it from below. As it merges with the plasma trail, the streak itself brightens for a distance then fades.
Possible debris found far west of Texas, where Columbia was seen breaking up, could shed light on the earliest stages of the disaster that killed the shuttle's seven astronauts, officials said.
More than 12,000 recovered remnants, many nickel-sized, have created a growing mosaic of evidence that could take months or years to pick through.